Hot high-end sales are cause for optimism

Home sales: Baltimore cannot be beyond repair if buyers are willing to scramble after expensive residences.

June 12, 1999

THE SIZZLING residential real estate market in Guilford, Homeland, Roland Park and Mount Washington should tell skeptics something. If high-income people are willing to pay top dollar for homes there, a psychological corner has been turned. Not too long ago ago, properties in those communities languished on the market for months.

Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse's controversial $8 million plan to build new homes near Falls Road and Lake Avenue is a response to that demand. Yet most, more modest parts of Baltimore are not sharing in that success. Houses in those communities may stay on the market unsold for a year or more -- if demand for them exists at all.

The next mayor must rectify this imbalance and see that the supply of upper-end homes increases. This means encouraging construction in desirable but overlooked communities. It also means aggressively recruiting residents willing to invest money and energy in reviving neighborhoods.

Much of the unsalable housing glut in Baltimore is a result of the region's slowing growth. As long as waves of people kept moving here -- from foreign countries or from the South -- even marginal houses were in demand.

After that large-scale influx stopped in the 1960s, much of the suburbanization that has occurred since has consisted of reshuffling the existing population.

Even though immigration to the United States is at its highest level since the 1910s, Baltimore is not a major destination for newcomers with drive and big dreams.

Nearly 50 years ago, the city's population peaked at 950,000; the city has at least 300,000 fewer people. The net loss, currently about 1,000 people a month, is expected to continue until at least 2020.

This shrinkage has profound fiscal implications for all Baltimore taxpayers. Yet it has not been adequately addressed by planners. And it has been, so far, ignored by candidates seeking city offices in this year's elections.

As Baltimoreans begin to think about their city's future and consider the candidates for mayor and City Council, it's time for public debate of the options. Are we to disappear as an important and vibrant city? Or can the city stage a wider rebound?

More specifically, these questions should be debated by candidates and voters:

Should Baltimore make a concentrated effort to repopulate abandoned rowhouses by offering them to foreign refugees?

How can young professionals, who are well-compensated in their first or second job and need tax shelters, be attracted to revive declining neighborhoods?

It was done decades ago in Charles Village and through the dollar-house program that transformed Otterbein and Barre Circle.

What would it take to persuade more empty nesters to return to the city?

Baltimore desperately needs residents and leaders with fresh ideas and a bold fighting spirit. Where some see nothing but deterioration, others must see neighborhoods full of opportunity.

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